Mitigating climate change, while human population and economy are growing globally, requires a bold shift to renewable energy sources. Among renewables, hydropower is currently the most economic and efficient technique. However, due to a lack of impact assessments at the catchment scale in the planning process, the construction of hydropower plants (HPP) may have unexpected ecological, socioeconomic, and political ramifications in the short and in the long term. The Vjosa River, draining parts of Northern Greece and Albania, is one of the few predominantly free-flowing rivers left in Europe; at the same time its catchment is identified an important resource for future hydropower development. While current hydropower plants are located along tributaries, planned HPP would highly impact the free-flowing main stem. Taking the Vjosa catchment as a case study, the aim of this study was to develop a transferable impact assessment that ranks potential hydropower sites according to their projected impacts on a catchment scale. Therefore, we integrated established ecological, social, and economic indicators for all HPP planned in the river catchment, while considering their capacity, and developed a ranking method based on impact categories. For the Vjosa catchment, ten hydropower sites were ranked as very harmful to the environment as well as to society. A sensitivity analysis revealed that this ranking is dependent upon the selection of indicators. Small HPP showed higher cumulative impacts than large HPP, when normalized to capacity. This study empowers decision-makers to compare both the ranked impacts and the generated energy of planned dam projects at the catchment scale.
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